Pratyusha Gupta's 26-minute short film, Safar, is a poignant exploration of a young woman's journey from the confines of one identity on the fringes of society to the city and to work in a respectable middle-class household. Gouri (a fantastic Shweta Tripathi) leaves behind a difficult past and the spectre of dhandha, and moves with her meagre belongings into the house of a grouchy (yet dil se achchhi), recently-widowed Parsi lady in Mumbai as her domestic help. The contrast between her past and present is delicately conveyed through the frames and the dialogue: Dhan madam (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal) is rude and dominating and does not trust strange women whom she derisively, and in an all-too-familiar manner, accuses of stealing and flirting with the watchman. But Gouri is obedient and helpful: she has a curious innocence and tentatively enjoys the novelty of her current circumstances with a childlike gratitude.
But she is acutely aware of her standing in society, that she cannot display any sense of familiarity in talking to unknown men. In this case, it's Salim, the taxi driver (an effortless Vipin Sharma). Her eyes must be lowered and her head bowed, lest aspersions be cast on her character. She must play the part of the good girl, with a diminished demeanour and a soft voice, taking up as little space as possible, and never raising objections. The passage of time however, allows the ice to thaw and her relationship with Salim to blossom from distrust to mutual appreciation – they are both strangers in the tough city, filling in for what the other is missing: one is without parents and one is without a daughter.
The taxi driver has also left behind a past, but in this case, it is not one that he is running away from. He has saved up to meet his family, whom he has not seen in years. It is the story of the millions who come to the city of dreams in search of work, to start afresh with a clean slate and renewed purpose, where the hope of finding work and economic opportunity is the only motivation driving them, where everything is in flux and the city is moving too fast to care about entrenched notions of prescribed identity. Destiny itself can be rewritten and one can choose to be a nameless cog in the ever-turning wheel of capitalism. But as Gouri realises, the stigma of sex work is relentless: it follows you everywhere and stares at you in the accusing eyes of everyday people for whom character and reputation are everything. Gouri encompasses and inhabits two starkly different worlds simultaneously – one that she wants to be in and that lives in the tenderness of her eyes; and another that she wants to be rid of, the casual brutality of which she keeps hidden until it bursts forth unexpectedly.
Safar is a must-watch, a beautiful slice-of-life short film narrated with simplicity and sensitivity. In a moving final scene, Gouri conveys a universe of emotion through her eyes: there is pain, helplessness and loss, the fear of having to return, desperation, shame, and overwhelming sadness and loneliness. The sea is standing still in the background, but Mumbai moves on.